Rebel Groups Face a Three-Front Fight Against Assad, ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra

'The Assad regime will always have an authoritarian tendency and willingness to put it to force, and arrest any politicians that disagree with its point of view'.

Written byLara Setrakian and Katarina Montgomery Published on Dec. 10, 2014 Read time Approx. 9 minutes
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While the U.S. strategy is centered on ISIS and the core security threats posed by the group, moderate rebel groups inside Syria are facing the prospect of complete annihilation as a result of internal challenges, a lack of resources and support, and the reality of a three-front fight against the regime, ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra.

“The reality is that in the current context, it’s very hard to see opposition forces spearheading the fight against ISIS,” says Ayham Kamel, London-based director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the Eurasia Group.

Ayham Kamel spoke to Syria Deeply about the state of Syria’s opposition, the strength of the regime, and the dynamics behind a new round of peace negotiations.

Syria Deeply: How is the fight against ISIS in Iraq impacting conditions in Syria, and vice versa?

Kamel: The conditions and fight against ISIS are radically different in the two countries. In Iraq, there is a more coherent strategy to defeat ISIS, including a political element and very robust military support for the Peshmerga and Iraqi forces provided by U.S. We’ve seen a higher likelihood of success against ISIS in Iraq across a set of geographies in Iraq. There is a political alliance that is willing and able to coalesce around the theme of defeating ISIS, and more of a political reconciliation effort supported by the U.S.

The same shape of strategy or resemblances of the same approach are not there in Syria. In Syria, everyone is in a wait-and-see mode, and trying to avoid the fact that there is no political element to the fight against ISIS. The armament program supporting moderate rebels has lagged behind with time, and the effort has only been particularly successful. The Assad regime, the U.S. and its allies, have decided to attack and focus on the fight against ISIS independently. There is also an implicit recognition that the effort to change the regime in Syria has really ended.

Syria Deeply: Is there interplay between what happens in Iraq and Syria?

Kamel: Not in terms of U.S. strategy, but there is a link between where ISIS is able to mobilize in Iraq and Syria. There is more opportunity for ISIS to grow in Syria given the pressure it feels in Iraq. Having a military presence and a support base in both countries enables it to shift back and forth. There is a link between how ISIS mobilizes its air forces and support group. Syria is important to ISIS not only from a strategic perspective, but also from a logistical one, having a larger area of the border to Turkey open, and smuggling routes where fighters can pour in and support its ranks is key.

Syria Deeply: In what ways has the U.S.-led fight against ISIS strengthened or helped the Syrian government?

Kamel: I don’t think it is structured to help the Syrian government in any way. The main effort is not focused on Assad and the Syrian government. The U.S. strategy is centered on ISIS and the core threats it poses, not only to the region but also broader international security. In practical terms, it helps Assad on the margins, to alleviate the pressure on the regime, but it also helps the opposition if the opposition is able to take advantage of the security conditions and airstrikes to expand into areas controlled by ISIS, which hasn’t happened because of the inherent weakness in the opposition forces. The U.S. airstrikes have exposed weakness in the opposition forces and has allowed the regime to build on its military edge in the conflict.

Syria Deeply: Rebel groups, specifically those considered acceptable to the West, have been weakened by infighting and the fight against ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Syrian government. Are we facing a situation in the future where the moderate rebel groups will be completely squeezed out?

Kamel: Absolutely. It’s been a problem that has been brewing since the start of the conflict, particularly in the last 12-18 months. Moderate opposition groups were never going to survive if they didn’t address some of the core structural issues and challenges it faces in terms of fighting the Assad regime. In the process, they have gotten weaker, and are facing a regime that has adapted its military and political tactics. Their morale has gone down and the structural problems have become much more problematic in terms of organizing against the regime. Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS have done a great job at leveraging opposition weaknesses and attracting fighters from other groups into their ranks.

There have been problems with the U.S. strategy in Syria, but inherently it’s more of a problem with the opposition ability to organize as a more capable and organized fighting force.

Syria Deeply: How do you see the strength of the opposition today? How would they fare in the ground war against ISIS?

Kamel: Everyone wants to believe this will happen. The reality is that in the current context it’s very hard to see opposition forces spearheading the fight against ISIS. They don’t have the necessary manpower and effectiveness to do it. Behind closed doors, no one is expecting them to do it. The expectation is that, between regime attacks and U.S. strikes, ISIS becomes weaker. I don’t think the Obama administration expects any military support to create an effective offensive Syrian rebel force. The most that has been discussed is creating and maintain a moderate rebel opposition presence that allows for negotiations with the regime.

Syria Deeply:There have been efforts in the past two weeks to create new umbrella structures for the opposition. How do you think those efforts fare?

Kamel: They are likely to fail because they have been triggered by failures on the ground and haven’t addressed the structural problems. There is no clarity on what strategy they are likely to follow and who would support them in a real way today. The fact that you have not only one but several umbrella organizations trying to do different things at the same time is an example of what is wrong with the current state of the opposition. There isn’t one party that can represent the organization; there are many and they are all weak.

Syria Deeply: Over the past few weeks Russia has have taken a more proactive role in Syrian peace talks, meeting with the opposition and publicly encouraging reconciliation efforts. Why do you think that is happening? What’s the most it can accomplish?

Kamel: The reality is that the Russians are leveraging what they see as an opportunity. There is more of an opening for diplomatic outreach and mediation in the current context. The moderate opposition has reached a phase where it is facing the risk of annihilation – a political deal might actually save some of the moderate rebels fighting in Syria and would integrate them in the fight against ISIS. At the same time, the regime recognizes that over the long term its goal should be to regain territory beyond Damascus and Homs, and to do that it has to accept the reality that it can’t win against everyone, so it has to strike real deals with opposition groups. Partially, the Russians are trying to take advantage of this opening, and take advantage of the fact that the international community is no longer interested in dedicating resources to the Syrian conflict – its priority is fighting ISIS.

Syria Deeply: What’s the most Russian- led efforts can accomplish?

Kamel: The most they can accomplish is a national unity government where a member of the opposition is selected to head the cabinet or prime minister, where a significant of number of ministries would be opposition controlled, while most of the security and foreign policy posts would probably be retained by the regime. The previous structures that have been floated in the past, a transitional government, are less likely to succeed today.

Syria Deeply: What does the arrest of Louay Hussein, one of the government’s most vocal critics at home, signal?

Kamel: The regime exploits whatever it can do to strengthen its position – it’s a cycle of arresting people left and right. The nature of the regime is inherently not comfortable with negotiation with politicians that disagree with its point of view. Any negotiation is based on the fact that the regime is not in full control of the country, and it recognizes that. The behavior of the regime hasn’t changed – it will always have an authoritarian tendency and willingness to put it to force, and arrest any politicians that disagree with its point of view. The reality is, it’s very hard to change the behavior of Arab regimes. It takes a long time to introduce good governance models that are in Europe and the West. The cultural context requires a recognition that you need to debate the other side, and that definitely does not exist with the regime.

Syria Deeply: At this point, how reliant is the Assad government on support from Russia and Iran? In what ways does it support the regime’s continuity? Is that a source of leverage in potentially steering Assad towards negotiations?

Kamel: Russia has leverage, but it recognizes what it can do and achieve in terms of pushing the Assad regime in a certain direction.

The Russians were never going to convince Assad to step down and give up power. The Syrian regime internally will not accept conditions that effectively declare its defeat. The Russians can pressure Assad and other members of military forces to pursue a certain direction and be more accepting of other opinions that are more inclusive, but it would require that Russia really use its leverage and not just its rhetoric. Irrespective of public positions, the Russians have been more critical of the Syrian regime than the Iranians have. The Russians have partially advocated for a more inclusive political solution as part of the regime strategy.

Syria Deeply: Overall, what is the state of Assad’s support base?

Kamel: It has always been a dynamic environment. Both the Assad regime and the opposition have their core support base and a broader base of Syrians in the middle that they try to appeal to. At the beginning of the uprising, the opposition was very successful at appealing to a significant part of the 30% of Syrians that weren’t hardlined, but the priority of many Syrians has shifted today. There is more skepticism over what the opposition represents, which is a function of the failure of the opposition on several levels. There is a shift back in the regime’s favor, but nothing about these shifts are permanent. The shifts are reflective of facts on the ground. If the opposition does better, it could win support of more Syrians. If the regime continues to win militarily and ISIS continues to spread, these developments will favor the regime. It will continue to be a dynamic story.

Syria Deeply: Three years on in the war of attrition, is Assad running low on fighters and resources of his own?

Kamel: The problem of conscription definitely exists for both the opposition and the regime. Many fighters in the opposition have left their ranks; supporters of the regime are critical of its military strategy and the casualties among the regime fighters. For the Assad regime, there is a serious recruitment problem. There is awareness of the conscription limitation and how much Assad can rely on his support base. The military strategy has been more prudent in terms of how to place units. The longer the conflict the lasts, the more acute this problem will be for Assad. However, it is very difficult to see how this translates into a change in regime position. It will become more painful for the regime to fight this war, but this will not necessarily change its outlook and strategy.

Syria Deeply: What, if anything, would be a more effective approach to solving the Syrian crisis?

Kamel: A more effective approach has to evolve strengthening moderate elements of the opposition through political, financial and armed support, but only as a strategy to strengthen its hands in negotiations with the regime. It’s very difficult to create an effective force that can defeat the Assad regime in a short period of time. There is no appetite for building a force over five or so years that will be able to run Syria. Given these limitations, the international community can strengthen the hands of the moderates in the face of Assad and ISIS, and enable them to negotiate for more.

Syria Deeply: How would you assess the plans for a U.N.-led cease-fire in Aleppo? Is it the right approach and what is the likelihood of success?

Kamel: I don’t necessarily think it will succeed. It’s a reflection of what happens on the ground: If the opposition feels weak enough in certain places that it has to accept a freeze or cease-fire, it will. The U.N. could be helpful in preventing the collapse of some opposition forces, but they will not necessarily revolve the conflict in any way. As it stands, the U.N. plan recognizes that given the weaknesses of the opposition, it’s very difficult to discuss a more comprehensive transition-of-power plan. The most you can achieve is prevent the opposition from collapsing in the face of attacks from the regime, ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra